Caligula was not quite 25 years old when he took power in 37 ce. At first, his succession was welcomed in Rome: He announced political reforms and recalled all exiles

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Caligula was not quite 25 years old when he took power in 37 CE. At first, his succession was welcomed in Rome: He announced political reforms and recalled all exiles. But in October of 37, a serious illness changed Caligula, leading him to spend the remainder of his reign exploring the worst aspects of his nature.

Caligula spent money on building projects, from the practical (aqueducts and harbors) to the cultural (theaters and temples) to the downright bizarre (building a 2-mile floating bridge across the Bay of Bauli so that he could spend two days galloping back and forth across it).

There were other bizzare stories about his horse. Accounts state that he loved one of his horses, Incitatus, so much that he gave the steed a marble stall, an ivory manger, a jeweled collar and even a house. Another chronicler, Cassius Dio, later wrote that servants fed the animal oats mixed with gold flakes. It is even rumored that he planned to appoint Incitatus as a consul in the Roman government. Yet some modern historians argue that the emperor’s wackier stunts, including his treatment of Incitatus, were designed to insult and humiliate senators and other elites. By bestowing a high public office on his horse, then, Caligula aimed to show his underlings that their work was so meaningless an animal could do it.

His miliatry accomplishements were even clouded by strange decisions. In 39 and 40 he led military campaigns up to the English Channel. There, he commanded his troops to "plunder the sea" by collecting sea shells in their helmets.

His relationships with other individuals were questionable at best. Caligula’s biographer, Suetonius, quoted him, "Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody." He tormented high-ranking senators by making them run for miles in front of his chariot. He had affairs with the wives of his allies and was rumored to have relationships with his sisters.

Caligula was tall, pale and so hairy that he made it a capital offense to mention a goat in his presence. He worked to highlight his natural ugliness by practicing terrifying facial expressions in a mirror. But he literally bathed in luxury, allegedly rolling around in piles of money and drinking precious pearls dissolved in vinegar. He continued his childhood games of dress-up, donning strange clothing, women's shoes and lavish accessories and wigs—eager, according to another one of his biographer Cassius Dio, "to appear to be anything rather than a human being and an emperor."

Caligula's greed was draining the Roman treasury faster than he could replenish it through taxes. A conspiracy formed between the Praetorian Guard (Roman secret service) and the Senate. In late January of 41 CE, Caligula was stabbed to death, along with his wife and daughter, by officers of the Praetorian Guard. Thus, Cassius Dio notes, Caligula "learned by actual experience that he was not a god."

The Senate attempted to use the disastrous end of Caligula's reign as a pretext to reestablish the Roman Republic, but Claudius, the heir designate, took the throne after gaining the support of the Praetorian Guard. The Julio-Claudian dynasty would remain secure for another 17 years, until Nero's suicide in 68.

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Nero’s mother, Agrippina the Younger, had married Emperor Claudius and was the driving force behind her son's adoption. She also arranged for Nero to wed Claudius' daughter Octavia in CE 53. Upon Claudius' sudden death in 54—classical sources suggest Agrippina fed him poisoned mushrooms—the 17-year-old Nero ascended the throne.

In his first five years as emperor, Nero gained a reputation for political generosity, but ultimately left the ruling of the Empire up to his mother, Agrippina. Eventually Nero stepped out from his mother’s shadow. She turned against him, promoting her stepson Britannicus as the true heir to the throne and protesting Nero's affair with his friend's wife Poppaea Sabina. But Nero had learned his mother's lessons well: Brittanicus soon died under dubious circumstances, and in 59, after a failed plot to drown her in a collapsible boat, Nero had Agrippina stabbed to death in her villa. The empress Octavia was exiled and executed, and in CE 62, Nero and Poppaea were married. Three years later, in what the Roman historian Tacitus described as “a casual outburst of rage,” Nero killed Poppea with a single kick to her belly.

Following his mother's death, Nero gave himself fully to his longstanding artistic and aesthetic passions. At private events beginning in 59, he sang and performed on the lyre and encouraged members of the upper classes to take dancing lessons. He ordered public games to be held every five years in Rome and trained as an athlete himself, competing as a charioteer. His most lasting artistic legacy, though, was his re-creation of Rome following the fire that destroyed most of the city.

Early in the morning of June 19, 64 a blaze broke out in the shops around the Circus Maximus and quickly spread throughout the city. Several classical sources place Nero on the roof of his palace during the fire, dressed in stage garb and singing from the Greek epic "The Sack of Ilium." Rumors quickly circulated that the emperor had started the fire to clear land and build a large temple palace.

Whatever responsibility he actually bore for the disaster, Nero deflected attention by blaming members of the fledgling Christian religion for the fire. He ordered all manner of creative and brutal persecutions: Some were condemned to be dressed in animal skins and torn apart by dogs, while others were burned to death in nighttime bonfires that provided light for the emperor’s garden parties.

Nero took from the Roman treasury to rebuild the city around his palace complex. At its center he commissioned a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself, the Colossus Neronis.

By the final years of his Nero's rule, the Roman Empire was under great strain.

With things falling apart at home, Nero took an extended tour of Greece, where he gave himself to music and theatrical performance and drove a chariot in the Olympic Games. Upon his return to Rome, Nero learned that that his arrest and execution were imminent, he took his own life. Fifty years later, the historian Suetonius reported Nero's final lament: "What an artist dies in me!"

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